A metalworking lathe from 1911, showing component parts: a – bed b – carriage (with cross-slide and toolpost) c – headstock d – back gear (other geartrain nearby drives leadscrew) e – cone pulley for a belt drive from an external power source f – faceplate mounted on spindle g – tailstock h – leadscrew
A watchmaker using a lathe to prepare a component cut from copper for a watch
Lathes are used in woodturning, metalworking, metal spinning, thermal spraying, parts reclamation, and glass-working. Lathes can be used to shape pottery, the best-known design being the potter's wheel. Most suitably equipped metalworking lathes can also be used to produce most solids of revolution, plane surfaces and screw threads or helices. Ornamental lathes can produce three-dimensional solids of incredible complexity. The workpiece is usually held in place by either one or two centers, at least one of which can typically be moved horizontally to accommodate varying workpiece lengths. Other work-holding methods include clamping the work about the axis of rotation using a chuck or collet, or to a faceplate, using clamps or dogs.
Craftsman Gregorio Vara working a chair leg on a lathe in Tenancingo, State of Mexico
The lathe is an ancient tool, with the first known representation dating to the 3rd century BC in ancient Egypt. Clear evidence of turned artifacts have been found from the 6th century BC: fragments of a wooden bowl in an Etruscan tomb in Northern Italy as well as two flat wooden dishes with decorative turned rims from modern Turkey,. More tenuous evidence exists from a Mycanean Greek site as far back as the 13th or 14th century BC. There is also evidence of use in Assyria and India. The lathe was very important to the Industrial Revolution. It is known as the mother of machine tools, as it was the first machine tool that lead to the invention of other machine tools. The ancient Chinese dating to the Warring States era also used rotary lathes to sharpen tools and weapons on an industrial scale. 
The origin of turning dates to around 1300 BCE when the Ancient Egyptians first developed a two-person lathe. One person would turn the wood work piece with a rope while the other used a sharp tool to cut shapes in the wood. Ancient Rome improved the Egyptian design with the addition of a turning bow. In the Middle Ages a pedal replaced hand-operated turning, allowing a single person to rotate the piece while working with both hands. The pedal was usually connected to a pole, often a straight-grained sapling. The system today is called the "spring pole" lathe. Spring pole lathes were in common use into the early 20th century.
Exact drawing made with camera obscura of horizontal boring machine by Jan Verbruggen in Woolwich Royal Brass Foundry approx. 1778 (drawing 47 out of set of 50 drawings)
An important early lathe in the UK was the horizontal boring machine that was installed in 1772 in the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. It was horse-powered and allowed for the production of much more accurate and stronger cannon used with success in the American Revolutionary War in the late 18th century. One of the key characteristics of this machine was that the workpiece was turning as opposed to the tool, making it technically a lathe (see attached drawing). Henry Maudslay who later developed many improvements to the lathe worked at the Royal Arsenal from 1783 being exposed to this machine in the Verbruggen workshop.
During the Industrial Revolution, mechanized power generated by water wheels or steam engines was transmitted to the lathe via line shafting, allowing faster and easier work. Metalworking lathes evolved into heavier machines with thicker, more rigid parts. Between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, individual electric motors at each lathe replaced line shafting as the power source. Beginning in the 1950s, servomechanisms were applied to the control of lathes and other machine tools via numerical control, which often was coupled with computers to yield computerized numerical control (CNC). Today manually controlled and CNC lathes coexist in the manufacturing industries.